First published in Positive News here
The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is resurgent interest in improving citizens’ well being but we shouldn’t automatically dismiss negative emotions; they can be important signals for change.
Currently there is a widespread cultural tendency, mediated through capitalism to minimise pain, unhappiness and darkness. We are led to believe that these things are bad per se and that there are purchasable solutions to bring us back to the supposedly desired, default state of polite and affable contentment.
If our back aches from spending most of the week hunched over a computer there are widely marketed anaesthetics to ‘banish pain fast’. But wouldn’t a walk with friends be healthier whilst also banishing the stress associated with too much office work?
As our cities over-heat from human-induced climate change, new lines of air conditioning systems are brought to market to cool our isolationist, living cubicles. Wouldn’t our energy be better spent painting roofs white, planting trees and transforming heat-trapping car parks into community farms and shady gardens all of which mitigate the effects of, and adapt us to, the changing climate?
Should we feel anxious and sad because something fundamental seems wrong with the way we are living Big-Pharma steps in with ‘happy pills’. But these emotions may be signals to change our lives and reestablish the communities that defined human society before industrialization.
Capitalism sells us superficial solutions to the severe problems it causes and by denying the pain, perpetuates the problems.
Overall, the huge proportion of the global economy given over to fizzy sugar-water, pornography, narcotics and ‘light entertainment’ are testament to the marketability of anodyne antidotes to the general malaise of life in the dimming light of the Industrial Era.
Today, increasing numbers of people experience a new kind of pain. It is the overwhelming trauma of realizing that our home planet is dying. Numbing this pain won’t make the problem go away. In fact by inhibiting our response it worsens it.
According to Tibetan Buddhist Shambhala teachings, the Bushidō of Japan and other ancient wisdom traditions there is a noble and righteous Way of the Warrior. This way involves opening ourselves to the pain and sadness all around us in the world and responding with integrity.
In our time this may translate as stopping the endless rushing, working and consuming and turning to look the darkness in the face. Increasing acidity of oceans, collapsing fish stocks, shrinking rainforests, species extinctions, needless wars, grotesque waste and brutal inequalities are all grim to behold but the pain we experience is motivation to change.
Culturally, we are conditioned to join the rat-race, forge forth our personal charge for material wealth accumulation and do our bit to grow the economy but, pause for a second, and we see that collectively this behaviour is the root cause of the problem. The more each of us strives for material wealth the more precarious our collective situation becomes.
Perhaps for the first time in human history increased social well being will not come about through working harder but in collectively agreeing to change how we live. This may involve fundamentally reinterpreting how we spend our time and what the purpose of work is.
We have reached the limits of what the industrial economy can provide us in terms of improving well being; speeding the economy up won’t help anymore. What we need is more community, better health and the secure foundation of stable ecosystems. These are not things an expansive, self-maximizing economy can sell. These are things we innately have, should we choose them.
Collectively flipping from competition, wealth accumulation and false notions of material security to cooperation, well-being and ecological lives may seem like a massive transition but it is based on a simple choice in each of our minds. A first step to any of us changing our minds may be choosing to feel the pain.